Area legislators talk lottery possibility ahead of special session

By: 
RYAN PHILLIPS
SDN Editor

A special legislative session is officially set to begin Thursday and the possibility of a statewide lottery is back on the table following a proclamation by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant and the recent revelation that House Speaker Philip Gunn does not intend to block lottery legislation if it receives the necessary support from his Republican colleagues.

On Tuesday night, Bryant rolled out the call for what could become the Mississippi Infrastructure Modernization Act, along with a framework for a state lottery and the distribution of settlement funds from BP following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. 

The lottery proposal will first require action from the Senate and looming uncertainty as to what the legislation may look like and how funds would be earmarked still has policymakers playing the waiting game. 
As far as the lottery is concerned, the proclamation issued by Bryant says the act would create the Mississippi Lottery Law and the Mississippi Lottery Corporation to administer it. 

The proclamation states the corporation shall be administered by a Board of Directors to be appointed by the governor with oversight provided by members of the Senate. 

While the possibility of a state lottery has been resurrected, Golden Triangle lawmakers differ in many ways when it comes to designing, implementing and doling out funds from a state lottery. 

BOON OR BURDEN? 

While some opposed to the lottery insist that the target demographic would not be focused solely on those struggling to make ends meet, a November 2017 study by the University Research Center at the Mississippi Institutions for Higher Learning claims that lottery sales will come “primarily from lower income groups,” a notion many on the political right have historically mentioned in their opposition to lottery legislation.   

State Rep. Cheikh Taylor, a Starkville Democrat whose district covers parts of Clay, Lowndes and Oktibbeha counties, says he will support a lottery, but would like to see a balanced approach in managing any new revenue streams, which could also come from internet sales tax legislation and policy regarding sports betting. 

“The lottery has sometimes been taunted as a burden on poor people,” Taylor said. “Some think people will go ahead and use their last dollar to cash in on a big win, but you have just as many studies that show its benefits. Mississippi needs to explore every avenue possible to increase revenue.”

Taylor, a first-term representative who campaign as a vocal supporter of education funding, said a lottery was projected to generate up to $80 million - a target he believes would be hit in the first year, alone.  

The study from the IHL reports that, if a lottery was implemented in Mississippi, state General Fund revenues would increase significantly, with an estimated gross revenue somewhere between $101.4 million and $116 million from lottery ticket sales. However, the revenue would ultimately be offset by a decline in retail sales tax. 

The center reports that the maximum offset is estimated to be in the neighborhood of $18.8 million to $22.2 million, which would yield a net gain to the state General Fund of around $82.6 million to $93.8 million. 

State Rep. Gary Chism, a Columbus Republican who represents parts of Clay, Lowndes and Oktibbeha counties, said on Tuesday that many view the lottery as a cure-all to the state’s economic woes. However, he then said if it was passed, the effects would not be immediately felt. 

“If you start (the lottery) today, that’s two years away before you get money,” Chism said. “We’re looking for ways to get immediate help.” 

Chism then alluded to House Bill 722, which passed the House unanimously during the last regular legislative session, but died once it reached the Senate Finance Committee in July. 

“That is the bill that we’re going to start with that (Gov. Bryant) has sort of endorsed and we’re going to send that over to the Senate,” Chism said. “It diverts 35 percent of internet sales tax away from the general fund. Fifteen percent goes to counties, 15 percent to cities and five percent goes to the perpetual MDOT bridge fund. If we do that, that’s going to give counties and cities some help.” 

He then said, if passed, roughly $300 million would be generated from internet sales tax, with a little over $100 million diverted to funding road and bridge projects. 

State Rep. Rob Roberson, a Starkville Republican who represents parts of Oktibbeha and Winston counties, also mentioned HB 722, praising the different items initially attached to the measure that would see increased funding trickle down to the local level. 

And in terms of a lottery, Roberson said the details will make all the difference. 

“The bulk of my constituents have said they want it,” Roberson said. “I have heard some negative, but the vast majority want it and I feel like I will vote in favor of it, assuming that it’s done correctly and how it will be done.”

Roberson did, however, say he expected there to be multiple amendments attached to any lottery legislation that would earmark funds for certain causes as a political maneuver to shore up support from as many policymakers as possible. 

“My bet would be there will be amendment after amendment saying that it’s to be earmarked for roads and bridges, education and veterans of foreign wars, whatever good you can attach to it,” Roberson said. “The reality is this is not a silver bullet to solve our problems, no more than the casinos were a silver bullet to solve our problems.” 

What’s more, Roberson agreed with Chism concerning both the two-year time frame that the state would see dividends from the lottery and that lotteries are often misunderstood as a “magic wand” approach to addressing large-scale needs. 

“If it’s set up where a private company comes in and we don’t have to put any money into it, that would be the proper way to do it,” Roberson said. “Then, if the money would transfer, I would prefer it to go to the general fund.” 

In terms of funding generated from the sale of lottery tickets, Roberson said estimates have shown it could generate between $40 million and $84 million, with the first couple of years coming in on the low end due to the implementation process. 

“It needs to be talked about in terms of what it actually is,” Roberson said. “It’s a voluntary tax. It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme. A lot of people’s retirement dreams is to win the lottery.” 

Once the legislative session begins, Chism said he hopes to see some support from Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves to reach an agreement on a comprehensive infrastructure bill. However, he said the division between the House and Senate have stalled many efforts originating from representatives. 

“We’ve sent several items over to (the Senate), as many as nine,” Chism said. “Tell us something, do something, pick one of them. If you don’t like (HB 722), pick another one. What’s really going to happen this time, 722 is going to be the one the governor is running with, so it’s going to be the one we’re going to be considering Thursday.” 

Multiple requests for comment from Sens. Gary Jackson, Angela Turner-Ford and Charles Younger were not returned by press deadline on Tuesday. 

State Rep. Karl Gibbs, a West Point Democrat who represents parts of Clay and Monroe counties, agreed with Chism when asked about disagreements with the Senate on lottery legislation and other policy. 

Gibbs then said he believes there will be bipartisan support for the different funding mechanisms slated for discussion during for special session and has heard that Lt. Gov. Reeves, who presides over the Senate, is on board with the idea of a lottery. 

“It’ll be a good thing for the state of Mississippi because we definitely need the revenue to help with our roads and bridges and help with education,” Gibbs said. “The lottery money is not the total solution, but will help fix the financial crunch the state is in.”

With a Republican super majority controlling both chambers of the legislature, both Taylor and State Rep. Kabir Karriem, a Columbus Democrat, agreed that there has been a lack of inclusivity for the Democrat Caucus as it relates to being cut in to policy talks ahead of the special session. 

Karriem, whose district covers Lowndes County, said the attitude by Republicans in the statehouse is often one of only reaching across the aisle when votes are needed to shore up support for specific legislation, like the Medicaid bill during the last legislative session. 

“They have a super majority but sometimes they need our votes to get legislation passed,” Karriem said. “That’s a travesty because some of the brightest minds are in the House of Representatives and that wisdom could shed some light.” 

With the possibility of a lottery back in the mix, Karriem and Taylor both lauded the possibilities as it relates to funding for education in some of the state’s most underserved areas. 

“The last thing I read, roads and bridges are about a $4 billion problem and we throw about $800 million at it a year,” Taylor said. “Even with these new funds, it’s still not enough money. You still have to take into consideration, you still have roads and bridges breaking down. What’s odd, they say we can’t fund education, but we don’t have enough money for roads and bridges either.” 

Karriem then reflected back to 1992, when Mississippi voters approved a statewide lottery that the legislature would ultimately fail to follow through on. Since Amendment 1 was passed, a long list of policy attempts have come up short when brought before state lawmakers. 

“I’ve always been a supporter of a lottery,” Karriem said. “I would hope, and we’re going to Jackson and seriously looking at a lottery, that we would honor Alyce Clarke. She has been a proponent for lottery for education every year she has been down there. Since 1985, she has championed a lottery.”

Clarke, a representative whose district includes Hinds County, has been an outspoke advocate for education policy during her time in Jackson and serves on the House Education Committee. 

Like Taylor, Karriem said the infrastructure issues are not as pressing in his district as those faced in places like the Delta, which underscores the need for municipalities to have funds earmarked for specific needs, such as education. 

“Education has been underfunded for so long and for so many years,” Karriem said. “We can’t put that on the back burner and we need to make sure we’re meeting the needs of the students across the state. In my opinion, everything needs to be looked at not with a shotgun approach, but with a surgical approach.” 

Conversely, Gibbs said the need for infrastructure improvements is of paramount importance in his district, especially in Clay County, which operates on a beat system that places the onus for infrastructure repairs squarely on county supervisors. 

“I would like to see funds earmarked for education as far as fully funding education and would like to see them give state employees a raise along with roads and bridges,” Gibbs said. 

As the special session draws near and lawmakers continue to draw up what any potential lottery legislation would look like, Roberson said it is important that legislators be honest about what a lottery will do and what it aims to accomplish. 

Despite saying he would support the measure if it was packaged a certain way, Roberson said he will take his vote under careful consideration. 

“I’m not just supporting anything that’s just rolled out there,” he said. “It’s too simplistic and it’s not going to be enough money to solve all our woes.” 
 

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